The suggestion by Seán Kelly, the leader of the Fine Gael contingent in the European Parliament, that Ireland’s two additional places in the European Union legislature should be reserved for MEPs elected by voters in the British-administrated north-east of the country is an entirely sensible one. It follows on from a very similar call last year by Guy Verhofstadt, the chief Brexit negotiator for the parliament and the head of the powerful Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE). With the United Kingdom gradually disengaging from the EU its current quota of parliamentarians will be redistributed around the multinational bloc, leaving the northern Six Counties without any democratic representation in Brussels. Their replacement with two representatives under an expanded Irish roster would be a further recognition of the special circumstances of the contested region. Yes, the practicalities and legal technicalities would be considerable but they would not be insurmountable.
Unsurprisingly, the isolationist Democratic Unionist Party has reacted with typical negativity, denying the realities of the Irish-British peace process of the last two decades. According to the pro-union Belfast Telegraph:
DUP MEP Diane Dodds said the idea was a non-starter as the UK had voted as a nation to leave the EU.
“Irrespective of how regions voted in the UK referendum, the nation voted to leave the EU. The “respect for the Good Friday Agreement in all it’s parts” that many Members have enthusiastically proclaimed since the UK’s referendum includes respect for the principle of consent – that Northern Ireland remains undeniably and solely subject to the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. We will leave the EU at the same time as the rest of our United Kingdom,” she said.
“Individuals from Northern Ireland can of course claim an Irish passport, and maintain EU citizenship as a result. However, those rights sit with the individual, and post-Brexit they do not confer any further rights than is appropriate to any EU citizen resident within a third country. EU treaties do not entitle non-residents to voting rights in European elections.
Of course, what Diane Dodds wilfully fails to understand is that all persons born in the Six Counties have Irish or British citizenship by right of birth, where all other legal requirements are met. There is no need for someone resident in the north to “claim an Irish passport” or to formally declare their Irish nationality to be recognised as a citizen of Ireland – or by extension, the European Union. This is an inalienable right for all persons born in the disputed territory, acknowledged by both island nations through international treaty and domestic legislation, and endorsed by the EU.
This legal and constitutional position was given further proof in Britain at the start of this year, as reported by the Guardian:
[Derry woman] Emma de Souza found herself at the centre of a legal battle after her application in 2015 for a residence card for her US-born husband, Jake de Souza, was rejected.
The Home Office initially rejected his application on the grounds that his wife was British, even though she never carried a British passport.
They said as she was born in Northern Ireland, under the British Nationality Act 1981 she was automatically deemed British and would have to apply through the normal routes for third country citizens. The Home Office told Mr De Souza the only way they could deal with his case was for his wife to “renounce her status as a British citizen”.
De Souza challenged that decision on the grounds that his wife had the right to be treated as an Irish citizen under the Good Friday agreement and was therefore an EU citizen exercising her freedom of movement rights.
The first-tier tribunal ruled in his favour.
“Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, people of Northern Ireland are in a unique position within the United Kingdom. The British and Irish governments recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish or British, or both,” said Judge Gillespie in his conclusion at the tribunal.
The Home Office appealed against the tribunal’s decision but was told this week that as there was “no error in law” it could not do so in that court.
Retaining two MEPs out of the current three for “Northern Ireland” is simply recognising that the United Kingdom’s legacy colony on this island remains a place apart from the UK as a whole. Which was understood and accepted by all parties way back in 1998.